‘New’ government, same owners

(photo credit: tayyar.org)

Lebanon is under new management this week, but the country is still largely owned by the same company–well it’s more of a holding company with a dysfunctional board of directors. Of course there are many new faces and much interest in them. For example, the Angry Arab has called new telecommunications minister, Charbel Nahhas, “a brilliant economist” and he’s touted Rayya Al Haffar, the new finance minister, as apolitical. She is also the first woman I believe, to have ever occupied such a high post in government.

The White House meanwhile, says it looks forward to working with the “next” Lebanese government “on behalf of the Lebanese people” in a statement issued earlier this week.

But I’m not so sure that the words “next” and “new” should be used to describe who is governing Lebanon. As any Lebanese would know, it’s really not about who the new ministers are, but who they represent. This means that very few of the folks who actually rule the country will be physically present in the cabinet. (A cynic would say the rulers control the ministers by remote.)

(photo credit: tayyar.org)
Those who do rule Lebanon–the board of directors, if you will,– met around a similar table last June just days before the actual parliamentary election.
Except they had cushier black leather chairs:
Most of the men at this power meeting lead the political parties that the new ministers belong to–so instead of speaking about the new government in terms of the new ministers’ personalities, Lebanese will be speaking about who the new ministers “belong” to–in other words, what board members got what.
For example….
Nabih Berri, head of Amal (right) ended up taking home 3 ministries while Amin Gemayel, head of the Kate’b only got one…
Meanwhile Samir Geagea, (left) head of the LF party took 2 ministries, Walid Jumblat (right), head of the PSP, took 3 ministries, and Michel El Murr, head of the influential Murr family, saw his son take the coveted Defense Ministry as well as the deputy premiership, a position he often occupies himself:
Member of parliament Butrous Harb (below left) was invited to the pre-election board meeting last June and this week received the crown for Minister of Labor. However Geagea (right) like Gemayel, is not a member of parliament, proving you don’t have to be elected to be on the board.

Then again, some board members are perhaps so important that they don’t even attend board meetings, sending proxies to those as well. These include Michel Aoun (5 ministers), who sent one of his advisors (right) to attend the pre-election meeting:

And Hezbollah’s leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah (2 ministers), who sent MP Mohammed Raad as his proxy:
(The fact that Hezbollah only received two ministers adds yet another layer of opaque complexity: i.e. the number of ministers may not necessarily reflect true political power)
Interestingly, the pre-election meeting last June was full of smiles. It was meant to assure Lebanese citizens that the election would go smoothly. But the board members are not always (or even often) friends…
Indeed board members (and their relatives) have launched several bloody wars against one another over the last few decades resulting in tens of thousands of deaths in Lebanon.
But at last June’s meeting, despite street battles a year earlier, the board members had refashioned themselves into country club buddies:
If not closer…
Hopefully I am underestimating the power of the new ministers, and perhaps they will be allotted some wiggle room to carve out meaningful reforms. But for the most part, Lebanese politics, by virtue of its lack of significant, non-personality cult based institutions, will remain nothing more than a soap opera, following the ups and downs, the make-ups and break-ups of the board members (elected or not), and whatever crowds they choose to associate with (America, France, Saudi Arabia, Syria Iran, Israel etc) at any given point in time. Because at the end of the day, most Lebanese will tell you, it’s every man (or board member) for himself.
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